by BMP

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The elevator was crowded, or perhaps only seemed that way because of the outrageously blatant flirting being perpetrated by Buck Wilmington in one corner. J.D. stared at the numbers on the display and willed the elevator to go faster, wondering how the hell it could take so long to go up a mere eleven floors.

“Well, Karin,” the tall, handsome agent purred, bending slightly to read her security tag. “How ‘bout I come see you in the copy room around ten, an’ we can call that our first date.” He winked. “Then you’ll have no problem kissing me this Saturday.”

There was a giggle.

J.D. rolled his eyes and fought the urge to make gagging noises. The elevator opened none too soon. He stepped off into the familiar hallway. A moment later, the soft, urgent dinging sound behind him alerted him that Buck was still in the elevator, one hand on the doorway keeping it open, still making eyes at the new copy clerk.

Exasperated, J.D. reached back a hand and yanked Buck out by the back of the jacket.

“He’ll see you at ten,” he said curtly to the young copy clerk as the door closed.

Buck straightened his jacket and glared at J.D. “Now that was downright rude,” he growled. “What’s got into you boy?”

“It’s our first day off suspension,” J.D. snapped back. “Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to get to the office on time?”

“What for?” Buck retorted with a mocking wink. “Chris probably ain’t gonna be back from gettin’ his doctor’s note till around ten or so. I’ve still got plenty of time.” He paused to say hello to a passing intern, admiring the curve of her calf.

J.D. rolled his eyes in irritation. “Best I can figure out, you’ve still got an hour or so available on Sunday. Why don’t you go see if she’s free?”

Buck grinned slyly. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he replied. “Gotta make up for all that lost time.”

They were still trading jibes when they went through the already open bullpen door. Buck stopped in mid sentence, clutching his heart in shock.

“J.D.,” he whispered hoarsely, dramatically letting go of his chest to grab onto J.D.’s arm with one hand. “Look over there and tell me if you see it. An’ if you see it, tell me what it is.”

“What it is, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra Standish drawled, straightening an already impeccable Windsor knot in his silk tie, “is someone who dresses appropriately for work. I know it’s a difficult concept to grasp, but once you get over that hurdle, you might even try it once.”

Buck walked slowly from one side of the undercover agent to the other, eyeing him from head to toe. He tapped his watch and made a show of holding it to his ear to see if it still worked.

“It sounds like Ezra Standish,” he said in exaggerated wonder, walking slowly toward Nathan, already at his desk and logging in to his computer. “It looks like Ezra Standish. Hell, it even smells like Ezra Standish.” He paused, dropping his voice. “But it can’t be Ezra Standish because it’s not even eight thirty.”

He whirled suddenly, pouncing onto the undercover agent, and demanding, “What have you done with Standish, you imposter!”

Ezra bent away from him, nonplussed. “If you insist on invading my personal space, the least you could do is wear a reasonably good quality cologne. Now please remove yourself from my desk.”

Josiah’s cheerfully booming “Good morning, my brothers!” drowned out Buck’s retort.

“Morning, Josiah,” J.D. returned, feeling strangely as if it were the first day of school. As if it had been months since he had seen them instead of merely a day or two.

Josiah gave J.D. a wide smile before bending his tall frame behind his desk near Nathan’s.

Vin grinned silently to himself, as he rifled his desk drawer looking to see what snacks he had left.

“Who made the coffee?” J.D. called, rising from his desk and giving Vin a suspicious look. If Chris wasn’t here yet, that meant that Vin had been the first to arrive.

Vin grinned even wider at the question.

“I made the coffee,” Ezra grumbled.

At the pronouncement, Buck fell right off of Ezra’s desk and lay spread eagled on the floor.

Ezra looked down at him with thinly veiled irritation. “Will someone please remove this refuse from the office floor?”

Buck looked up at the ceiling and moaned. “The universe is upside down. Night is day. Day is night. The end is near!”

“Get up, Buck,” J.D. hissed. “You never know who might come down here.”

“Killjoy,” Buck retorted, peeling himself off the floor and tossing himself into his desk chair.

Josiah went by, clutching something in both hands. He disappeared into Chris’s office, noting the fresh new door standing open on its shiny new hinges.

The other five agents stared at him and then each other.

“What was that?” J.D. snorted leaning over toward Vin.

They all got up and went to the doorway. Standing on Chris’s coaster was a monstrosity of a mug, cobbled together from pottery clay and the pressed in pieces of Chris’s shattered coffee cup. Josiah was looking at it thoughtfully, appraisingly, as it sat, somehow hunchbacked, on the coaster.

“I repeat,” J.D. said, hardly able to talk for laughing. “What the hell is that?”

“Frankenstein’s mug,” Vin muttered.

“An apt comparison,” Ezra agreed, looking at the lopsided, overgrown, off-center contraption.

Josiah shrugged, unperturbed.

“Couldn’t you just buy a new cup?” Nathan asked, squinting at what had once been a perfectly serviceable coffee cup and now seemed to be a modern art commentary on the ravages of caffeine.

“He likes that one,” J.D. pointed out.

“Not any more he won’t,” Buck snorted out through his stifled laugh.

Josiah smiled a quiet smile. “Sure he will,” he replied.

The others stared at him.

“It’ll hold more coffee,” he said smugly, as he walked out of the small office and returned to his desk.

The others were still laughing when they heard the far off ding of the elevator. Vin leaped toward the bullpen door. “’Scuse me,” he said, darting into the hallway outside.

A moment later, the noise of applause and shrill whistling echoed down from the offices and cubicles beyond. Moving toward the door, they joined right in.

Chris stood at the elevator bank, entirely in black from head to toe except for his yellow hair and his face, which had grown extremely red. He appeared to be minutely examining his shiny black shoes. He let the noise go a moment longer before looking up at Tanner, standing among the “audience” he had clearly orchestrated. He threw the sniper a black glance that promised vengeance.

Larabee held up a hand. The noise quieted.

“Thank you,” he said. He gave an embarrassed smile to the mostly female staff, and moved rather quickly toward the bullpen door. The five agents in the doorway moved swiftly to their desks and pretended they had been there all along.

“Whew! That was some speech,” Vin said falling into step behind Chris as they came through the bullpen door. “Thought for a minute you’d never quit jawin’.”

“I oughta shoot you, Tanner,” Chris growled not even looking behind him.

Vin’s insubordinate grin was so wide, Nathan thought he might strain a muscle.

They paused at the door to Chris’s office. Buck suddenly leaped to his feet and threw himself into the doorway, arms spread, blocking the way.

“Not so fast, there, Slick,” he said, mockingly, crooking a finger at Chris. “Lemme see the note first.”

Chris reached into the inside pocket of his black jacket as if he were looking for a gun, and gave Buck a smile that would have made his blood run cold had he not known Chris quite so well. Instead of a gun, the blond team leader pulled out a folded piece of paper from a prescription pad. He waved it across Buck’s line of vision. Buck grabbed for it, but he pulled it back.

“Let me see it,” Buck said in the voice one uses when asking a toddler to show you what he is hiding so earnestly behind his back.

Chris made no reply, but his smile grew more evil. Buck moved out of the way.

“What the hell happened to my coffee cup?” Chris’s amazed voice asked, floating out from the office.

“Mr. Sanchez has had its capacity enhanced,” Ezra drawled from his desk. “To the detriment of its appearance.”

Chris appeared in the doorway holding the mug by the handle as if testing whether it would really hold together. He looked at Ezra, a tiny smile crossing his face. He glanced up at the bullpen clock and gave the undercover agent the barest of approving nods.

Ezra allowed the tiniest hint of a smile to smugly cross his own face before he returned to scanning the e-mail that had piled up in his recent absence.

Chris raised the mug in a salute toward Josiah, then headed into the kitchenette to fill it. He returned, tried his new key in his new door, settled into his chair, logged into his computer and leaned back, listening to his agents teasing, jibing, picking incessantly at each other. He grinned as he let the sound envelope him. Then finally he gave a heavy sigh, grateful for the extra large cup of coffee, and called in his first agent.

The five remaining agents fell silent, exchanging glances as Josiah entered the office, closing the door behind him. Chris raised his eyebrows in question, as Josiah took his seat. The profiler nodded his head once to say he was ready, and Chris pressed the record button on a voice recorder beside him. He gave the date, his name, the purpose of the investigation and the name and position of the interviewee. He looked back up at Josiah and fired off the first question. The official inquiry had begun.

Josiah Sanchez was grilled for more than an hour over material he had already gone over back at the ranch. This time Chris took careful notes, went over details, backtracked and double-checked facts. Josiah had to admire his thoroughness. If he hadn’t already known better, he might not have noticed the questions that Chris, with great subtlety, did not ask.

The profiler knew Chris Larabee to be a man of great integrity. Admittedly, he did not always accomplish his tasks using the time-honored methods preferred by convention and politics, but he had a rock-solid code of right and wrong, the ethics, by which he lived, worked, and had proven his willingness to die. If he turned in his report and something in it raised a red flag, Travis would send Larabee right back to ask his team the very questions he was avoiding. And if Travis sent him back, Chris would have to ask them.

Josiah knew that Chris would be careful to prevent that from happening. But he also knew that if it came down to it, Larabee would willingly violate his own integrity to save the team from the ramifications of their own actions. Josiah mentally hauled another heavy stone up the great pile representing his own sins and plopped it right down on the top.

He heaved a sigh as he exited Chris’s office, closing the door behind him. He ran a hand over his face and then looked up at the five faces watching him expectantly. He did not have time to answer any of their unvoiced questions before his phone rang. He moved quickly to answer it.

They could hear the grim acceptance in his voice as he spoke. “Yes, sir. I’m on my way up.”

He paused, noticing they were still staring at him. “Travis,” he said simply.

Buck swore under his breath. “Doesn’t waste any time,” he muttered.

J.D. squinted at him, trying to control the sudden fear on his face. “I thought Chris was conducting our inquiry,” he said trying to sound merely puzzled.

Buck’s mouth pulled into a tight straight line. “He is. But Travis is conducting Chris’s inquiry.”

J.D. looked confused for only a moment. Then he inhaled sharply, his mouth forming a perfect “o”. “I didn’t know,” he said quietly, after a moment.

Ezra snorted. “Let no act of self preservation go uninvestigated or unpunished,” he said, his voice holding a sharp edge.

“What did you expect?” Nathan responded sharply. “He let an armed assailant have his badge and gun. Did you think they’d just let that slide by?”

“And violated any number of other protocols,” Buck added grimly.

“And we have to testify against him?” J.D. asked angrily.

“You just have to tell Travis what you saw,” Vin replied calmly, resignedly.

J.D. stared at him. “And that’s okay with you?”

Vin shrugged. He wasn’t happy about it, but what choice did they have? “We take our lumps. Chris takes his. That’s the way it goes.”

Yeah, Buck thought. And having a bigger fish to fry takes the heat off the rest of us. He did not dare voice his thought out loud. But the glance Vin threw his way told him clearly that he wasn’t the only one who had some suspicions about how Chris was planning to play this out. Or how dearly the directors needed to rake someone over the coals for this. His good mood evaporated.

Josiah did not return again until two more hours had passed. By that time, Nathan had had his turn in Chris’s office for nearly the same length of time. He emerged, closing the door behind him in time to see Josiah re-enter the bullpen.

Buck and J.D. looked up at Josiah questioningly. They could see the anger written in the lines of his face.

“Is Travis alone?” Buck asked.

Josiah shook his head in response, not trusting his voice to simply spill out the epithets he was thinking.

Buck swore. “He’s a got a director with him?”

“Two,” Josiah returned through his teeth.

Buck swore again. He looked over at Vin from the corner of his eye.

They glanced over at the closed office door.

Nathan’s mind wandered instantly back to a Texas hotel room and their hurried conversation about not bringing Chris into the inquiry. He had tried to tell them then, and he was proven correct now; their actions would drag Chris through the mud right along with them. He clamped his mouth shut tight and headed suddenly for the coffee maker. Saying “I told you so” would not do anyone any good.

“This could go bad for all of us,” Buck said, looking especially at J.D.

J.D. sighed. “But we knew that when we went,” he said firmly.

Buck rolled his eyes. That wasn’t his point. He let it slide. He didn’t see the point of belaboring what he himself had only recently come to realize. He threw an angry look at the medic’s retreating back and cursed him for being right.

At one o’clock, Buck unfolded himself from his desk chair and crossed the bullpen to Chris’s office. He paused only long enough to knock on the closed door before letting himself right in. Chris looked up at his entrance. The fact that he neither glared nor commented on the intrusion showed that the team leader’s attention was clearly elsewhere.

“Lunch?” Wilmington asked.

Chris looked up at him, slightly dazed. He blinked and jerked his eyes toward the clock on his computer. Checked it against his watch. He rubbed his forehead unconsciously with one hand, the thought he had been pursuing now fragmented.

Buck narrowed his eyes. He did not comment on the fatigue he saw in Chris’s face. He was beginning to think he’d have to ask the question again, when Chris finally decided to answer.

“Right,” the blond said, suddenly collecting himself. “Sounds good. I’m starving.”

His tone was too automatic. From the corner of his eye, Buck watched Chris push himself to his feet, both hands on the desktop. Buck said nothing. He hoped Chris planned to go home early. Like maybe right after lunch.

Chris reached over to pull his suit jacket off the sofa, wincing slightly with the stretching motion. They had forgotten to put a hook on the back of his new door. He slid stiffly into the sleeves.

“Where to?” he asked, forcing an easy tone.

Buck grinned. “Where else? The Saloon.”

Chris smiled faintly back and nodded at the suggestion.

It took a mere moment for Chris’s eyes to adjust to the dim interior of the bar and restaurant, but it took less than that for the exclamation to reach his ears.

“Señor Larabee!” Inez exclaimed in delight, throwing down her white bar towel and hurrying around the bar toward the door. She stopped before him and looked him over with narrowed eyes. “I think we need to fatten you up,” she said sternly.

His embarrassed smile revealed his dimples as he looked suddenly at the floor. On impulse she laid a hand on one cheek, and kissed him on the other. “How we all have missed you!” she said warmly. Then she let him go to his friends, who were already sliding into their table.

J.D. was elbowing Buck mercilessly in the ribs.

“Yeah, yeah, I saw,” Buck grumbled. He hadn’t even had time to start a line of patter, and Chris had already stolen a kiss from the pretty Latina proprietor that he had been flirting with and asking out for the better part of the last three years, to no avail despite his obvious charm and much vaunted animal magnetism. It had become a running joke with the team.

“I don’t recall her ever kissing you,” J.D. said thoughtfully.

Vin grinned. He handed Ezra five dollars under the table.

“Shut up,” Buck growled, but his blue eyes twinkled as Chris slid into his accustomed seat at their center.

Buck leaned in close to his oldest friend. “Must be that big bar tab Team Eight ran up, waitin’ for you to come back. ‘Cause it sure ain’t your good looks.”

Chris smiled to himself but kept silent. He had paid Team Eight’s bill days ago, by credit card, over the phone, over top of Inez’s insistence that the drinks had been on the house. A reward for the safe return of a good friend. He had pretended not to hear it. Just like he was pretending right now that she hadn’t just kissed him. Although, he had to admit he was enjoying how J.D. was nettling Buck.

A young waitress took their orders. She blushed when Buck called her “darlin’”. She disappeared into the kitchen.

Inez smiled to herself, filling their drink orders. All soft drinks. It was a work day. She could hear them talking, laughing. A sound she had missed.

She had worried about them all while they were away. Then Team Eight had come in. Agent Stone had swaggered up to the bar and demanded that she open Chris Larabee’s tab. She had stared at him aghast, felt anger rise, until she realized that Stone had his tongue stuck in his cheek as if he were a cat hiding the pet canary in its jaws. Practically bursting with the news. “He owes us a round of drinks for savin’ his butt and bringin’ him back alive.”

Inez had stared at him in disbelief. Agent Stone had grinned back at her, the rest of his team joining him at the bar.

“Señor Chris is alive?” she had asked in wonder.

The men of Team Eight all began to tell the story of how they had found him, each man competing to be heard over the others. In the confusion she could not follow much of it.

She stuck two fingers in her mouth and let loose a shrill whistle.

The men of Team Eight and most of the rest of the patrons in the bar had stopped talking immediately. She had ignored the rest of the patrons looking at her expectantly. “Señor Chris is alive and you all found him?” she had asked to be sure she had heard right.

“Technically,” Agent Gustin had replied smugly. “I found him.”

“Ryan Kelly says they’ll probably keep him at the hospital a few more days. But he an’ his bad attitude oughta be back in a few weeks,” Stone supplied

Inez had smiled back at him. “Then I will buy the first round. Señor Larabee can buy the second.”

The men of Team Eight had cheered and high-fived each other, then bellied close to the bar and began shouting out their drink orders.

She smiled at the remembrance and glanced over at the seven of them again. Glad to see that seat in the center properly filled again. Glad to see the twinkle restored to Agent Wilmington’s blue eyes. Glad to see that sly smile on Señor Vin’s face again. Glad to see the young one’s exuberance restored. Glad to see Agents Jackson and Sanchez looking less serious and Agent Standish collecting money under the table. Glad most of all to see that rare smile the quiet leader had given her as she set a very large cup of coffee in front of him.

They took the full hour for lunch. Everyone pretended not to notice that Chris only ate half of his burger. Deep in conversation with J.D., Buck never interrupted his commentary or looked away as he sprinkled some extra salt on the rest of his fries and pushed the plate toward Chris with his elbow. He kicked the blond under the table.

Chris flicked him an exasperated glance and continued his conversation with Josiah and Nathan. Buck smiled as he watched the fries slowly disappear anyway.

Immediately after they returned from lunch, Travis called Chris upstairs.

“What’s up?” Buck asked when Chris announced where he was headed. He knew it was too soon for Chris to be telling his side. They had only spoken to Josiah so far. Chris would be last.

Chris shrugged. “I’ll find out when I get up there,” he said philosophically.

J.D. relaxed visibly as Chris left the room.

Buck shook his head. Kid was wound up tighter ‘n a clock spring. He’d been jiggling his left knee so hard all morning that Buck’s desk began to vibrate and Ezra had complained sarcastically about minor localized earthquakes. The boy needed something to do besides sit and worry over what he was going to tell the brass. Buck looked at the clock. Depending on how long they needed Chris for, nobody would be interrogating anybody for possibly the next hour or so. He searched his brain for an errand he could send J.D. on.

Buck suddenly spouted a stream of epithets that turned the air around him blue.

“What?” J.D. demanded alarmed.

“Of all the stupid… God damn it, you’d think a man would learn after a while…,” Buck snarled.

“What happened?” J.D. asked again, getting to his feet.

Buck could feel the others staring at him. Tense.

Buck balled up a piece of notepaper and threw it down on his desk disgustedly. He looked up at J.D. sheepishly. “I deleted that damn file again.”

“What?” J.D. said in disbelief.

Buck groaned. “I renamed it before we left. Thought it was somethin’ else, so I trashed it. I just emptied the bin. God damn, it,” he moaned. “This’ll be the third time I’ve had to write that damn memo.”

J.D. looked at Buck exasperated. He got up from his chair. “Get up,” he snapped.

Buck got up slowly, looking chagrined.

“I swear, Buck,” J.D. grumbled, sliding into the desk chair. “You’d think a man would learn…” The young agent, their computer whiz, set to work searching out where in the network the trashed file might still be.

“I know, kid,” Buck said sheepishly. Behind J.D.’s head, he couldn’t help but grin. “Guess I’ll get me some coffee.” Buck said, knowing that he had thrown that file out real good this time and it would take J.D. some phone calls to IT to get it reinstated. More than likely, J.D. would go down to IT himself to get it done faster, and so he could complain about it.

When Buck returned with his coffee, he saw J.D. working away, grouchy, talking to himself a blue streak. Buck smiled a smug, self-congratulatory smile that was hidden entirely by his coffee cup.

Vin gave him a knowing smile. Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra each nodded their silent approval.

Orin Travis flicked his gaze back and forth between his two senior agents. He had started out the meeting intending to send Chris Larabee home early, but now what he really wanted was to put the Team Seven leader under a hot spotlight and grill him. Something didn’t fit quite right and he wanted to know what it was. But pale as it was, Larabee’s poker face was too good to give anything away other than his perfectly appropriate reaction to the news Travis had just dropped.

On top of that, Travis had to admit he wasn’t sure how deeply he wanted to go to find out what might be causing his gut feeling. God knew he had enough that he did know about that he was required to investigate. Nevertheless, the Assistant Director did not bother to keep his suspicion and exasperation off his face. If Larabee noticed, he did not show it.

Kelly gave a sidelong glance to his Team Seven counterpart, wondering how it was that Larabee was still vertical. And playing the game to the hilt. Doug Stone had whined for three straight hours his first day back from getting his gall bladder out—and he hadn’t even had to stay in the hospital.

“You’ll have to hand over your files and the results of your investigations. And you’ll have to meet with Team Eight to discuss those results.” Travis continued stonily.

As he said it, Travis scanned his Team Seven Team Leader’s face closely for proof of his deception.

He got a tight-lipped grimace.

“That’s two years worth of work that my team has done,” Chris pointed out, a hard edge in his voice.

Travis noted the edge with some exasperation, and a small part of him began to wonder when he had started to become paranoid.

“Sir,” Kelly broke in, looking uncomfortable. “Team Seven’s done all the work on this. I can’t bring my team in at the eleventh hour.”

Travis leveled a glare at Kelly. “Team Eight has been ordered to take over this investigation. Are you refusing?”

Kelly grimaced. “I’m not refusing,” he replied, keeping his voice even. “I’m saying that it’s not your usual policy to call in another team to take over an investigation, unless there’s a problem.”

Travis let out a sharp grunt of disgust. “Oh there’s been a problem, all right.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Chris flinch.

“There’s been no problem with our investigation,” Chris returned, clearly struggling to keep his voice calm, reasonable.

Kelly’s eyes flicked over to his Team Seven counterpart.

Travis’s eyes narrowed as he turned back to Chris.

“We put in two years of work on this investigation,” Larabee pointed out, anger rising in his voice. “Two years, and a whole lot of our own sweat and blood.”

Travis’s voice was cold and sharp. “Your team’s problems have superceded jurisdictional issues,” he snapped.

Chris narrowed his eyes back at his supervisor. Only the twitch in the tendons in his neck showed his effort to keep his temper under control.

Travis deliberately turned away from his most troublesome Senior Agent, returning his gaze to the leader of Team Eight. “The federal government wants someone on this right away,” he said evenly. “And Team Seven isn’t available to move on this.”

Kelly shifted slightly in his chair. “It’s going to take a while for Team Seven to fill us in on two years worth of work,” he hedged. Hopeful that Travis might see that Team Seven might be available by the time they had finished going over the files with Team Eight.

Travis somehow managed to direct his words to Chris, without removing his eyes from Ryan’s face. “Yes,” the gray-haired director replied icily. “It will give Team Seven something to do, while they await the consequences of their poor decisions.”

At that, Travis received a real Larabee glare, animating the bloodless face with its intensity.

That just made Travis angrier.

Ryan Kelly looked from one to the other and realized he’d rather be sitting on a pile of hot coals than in this room, filled with the deadly flying shrapnel of accusations yet to be answered and punishments waiting to be levied. When the door to Travis’s office did open and spit them back out into the waiting room, he went first, feeling the tension rolling out behind him. He cleared the waiting room and stopped to breathe out in the hallway beyond. Larabee was a lot slower, and somehow Kelly didn’t think it was his injuries, so much as stubborn resentment at the order he had just been given.

Kelly was still breathing the clearer air of the hallway, when he felt Chris and the big chip on his shoulder step up beside him. He couldn’t help but look over. Chris was staring intently back through the waiting room toward the closing interior door of Travis’s office. After the door had closed completely, he turned glittering green eyes to Ryan.

Ryan didn’t blame Chris for his resentment. God knew he’d be furious, too, if they tried to take away a major investigation he’d had his team on for two years and hand it to another team. Yet, he also knew there wasn’t much Team Seven could say about it, given the circumstances.

Kelly inhaled. “Chris,” he began, aware that he sounded pained. “I didn’t…”

Chris narrowed his eyes. “I know you didn’t. Don’t worry about it,” he said curtly.

Kelly spread his palms, as if he wanted to say more. He did. He just didn’t know what.

“Consider it a reward for your good work,” Chris said sarcastically. He gave Kelly one last glance before turning on his heel and heading in the opposite direction.

Kelly stared after him. Chris was pissed. That was clear. He could hear the anger vibrating in the air when he spoke. But still, Ryan could have sworn he had seen something else entirely in that last glance.

Chris returned to the Team Seven bullpen glowering like a black thundercloud.

“Pull together your files on Dowd,” he announced. “We’re handing the whole investigation over to Team Eight.”

Voices raised in immediate, virulent protest. He held up his hand and glared at them fiercely. “Travis’s orders. Just do it.”

He disappeared into his office and, uncharacteristically, closed the door—again. Muffling the protests behind him.

He did not call anyone else in that afternoon. Nor did he come out. Around five, it was Buck who knocked on the door.

“Come in,” the clipped voice said.

Buck poked his head in. Testing the air. Wondering if he’d get his head bit off.

“What happened?” he asked, coming all the way in and sliding into a chair across from Chris’s desk.

“What happened?” Chris snapped, loudly enough that the others could hear him through the open office door. “You went fucking AWOL,” he growled. “So now when they want to turn up the heat on the investigation, we’re not available to do it.”

Buck flinched. He started to open his mouth. He wasn’t sure what he meant to say, maybe to apologize again. He didn’t know, but whatever it was, it died suddenly as he met the glittering green glare head on. He reached over instinctively and shut the door.

Chris waited until the voices started up again outside before he spoke again, staring intently at Buck. “Military intelligence got a line on some rocket launchers they believe were acquired by Dowd,” he said, his voice strangely flat compared to the intensity of his gaze. “Since our regional office has been investigating Dowd, they asked for our immediate cooperation.”

“And Team Eight is immediately available?” Buck asked.

“Travis just cleared their decks for action,” Chris replied.

Buck leaned back in his chair and regarded Chris silently for a moment. “Military intelligence?” he asked slowly.

A strange little flicker of a smile crossed over Chris Larabee’s face so fleetingly Buck almost wasn’t sure he saw it. “Army, Navy, Air Force,” Chris said casually. “Who cares? It’s not our case anymore.”

This time Buck caught it. He sat up in his chair. “When do you want us ready to brief Team Eight?”

“As soon as possible,” Chris answered. He turned back to his computer.

Buck knew from the gesture that he was dismissed. He shut the door again on his way out.

Damn! He thought. God it hurt to give up two years worth of work and what would have been a huge coup in their team dossier.

On the other hand, he couldn’t prove it and wouldn’t swear to it under oath or anywhere else, but somewhere down in his gut he was absolutely certain that Chris had done this. He had taken it out of their hands. Taken away the question of what to do about what they had discovered. Done his duty by the ATF and the public. Given Team Eight a juicy thank you gift. And fixed it so the information couldn’t be traced back.

J.D. watched his best friend and teammate, as he came out of the team leader’s office. Buck sat down in his desk chair, looking sort of blank. J.D. stared at him curiously. He waited and when no acknowledgement of what had happened was forthcoming, he voiced his own opinion aloud. “This sucks,” he announced, prompting the other five agents to look up at him.

Buck blinked, as if catching up. “Yup,” he agreed but without force. Then he turned back to his computer. He had started this. He had brought Chris in on this secret by telling him what they found out. Now he could never tell what Chris had done.

He logged off and announced that he was leaving for the day. Team Eight could wait one more damn day before they started stealing their files away.

J.D. agreed and stood up after him.

Vin and Ezra gave each other a long glance.

They sighed in unison. “If we run now,” Ezra suggested, tilting his head toward the closed office door, “then someone else will have to make sure he leaves at a decent time.”

Vin grinned. He didn’t bother to say that he thought that a decent time would have been before Travis had called Chris up. Instead he just stood up and stretched. He jerked his own head toward the office door. “You just go along now, Ez,” he drawled mockingly. “I ain’t afraid of Larabee.”

Ezra cocked an eyebrow at the sharpshooter expectantly.

Vin winked. “He don’t move so fast yet.”

“Good luck, then,” Ezra said shortly. He left the area immediately.

Nathan and Josiah left at a more civilized pace, hanging out only long enough to hear Chris say that he was in fact leaving very shortly, and to see Vin plant himself in one of Chris’s visitor chairs, replying that he’d just wait until Chris was ready then.

Chris glanced up at Nathan and Josiah. They looked away again and moved off toward the elevators.

In the ensuing silence, Vin cocked his head to one side and regarded Chris. “Thought you’d be madder,” he said quietly, staring at his friend intently.

Chris flicked a quick impatient glance at him. “Can’t fight the whole U.S. government,” he replied. “What choice do we have?”

Vin didn’t reply. There’s always a choice, Cowboy, he thought. You taught me that. Chris had given this battle away, rationally, sensibly, reasonably, obediently, and way too easily.

Chris looked back up at him, his lips twitching up in a sudden smirk that dissolved so quickly, only someone who knew him well would have noticed it. Vin read its meaning as I’ll never tell.

Chris turned off his computer. “Let’s get out of here,” he snapped irritatedly.

Vin smiled as he followed his black-clad leader out to the elevators. Damn sneaky, Larabee, he thought to himself. Remind me never to turn my back on your bad side.

Chris didn’t show up at the office until nearly ten the next morning. He gave no explanation for his late arrival. He took a look around the bullpen, made a few inquiries about the collection of the files on Dowd, and asked Buck to put together a timetable for setting up briefings with Team Eight. Then he went into his own office and dropped his coat and briefcase onto the couch and slid behind his desk.

Nathan paused in the doorway on his way up to face Travis. He shot Chris a hard look, noting the Team Leader looked even more tired than he had yesterday.

J.D. must have noticed as well because a second later, the youth brought the coffee pot to Chris’s door.

Chris glanced up at the medic impatiently. If Nathan had been more suspicious or less charitable, he might have called the look defiant. He glowered back, but he clamped his jaw together and said nothing, moving on toward the bullpen door, and the corridor beyond. Silently reaming Chris out in his head.

J.D. slipped behind Nathan into the Team Leader’s office, holding the pot out before him.

“Thanks,” Chris muttered and flipped over his monstrous mug from Josiah.

“Sure,” J.D. returned with forced cheerfulness, pouring the coffee, some of it slopping over the edge of the cup. He didn’t notice, leaving as quickly as he had appeared.

Chris swore silently, watching him flee. He needed to move J.D. up to this morning before the boy got any more jittery.

He sipped his coffee. Black. Like his mood. He swore again. He had only just arrived and already he felt like something Buck scraped off the bottom of his barn boots. He needed to put in a long hard day. He needed two more interviews at least. And he needed to roll up his sleeves and do some heavy duty maneuvering. If anything, he was going to need to get sharper and be on his game by the week’s end. But this recovery thing was still kicking his ass, and he hated it.

He stopped swearing and dug in. There was no point complaining. Just get the job done. Then he could worry about things like sleeping, and eating, and getting Buck the hell off his back. He smiled to himself, hearing the voice of an old training officer who used to tell his young SEALs, “There’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.” Chris felt like calling the old timer and telling him “Don’t bet on it.”

Then he took out his notes, reviewed yesterday’s comments, and buzzed J.D. to come in.

J.D. stood up like his chair had been suddenly electrified.

Buck stared at him. “Easy kid,” Buck said calmly, almost under his breath. “He’s only gonna ask you questions like he did before.”

J.D. stared back at him, anything but calm. “But this time it’s real,” he snapped. “This is my career. My work. You don’t know how hard I fought for this position. To even get an interview!” His eyebrows came down as his voice came up, now a harsh and strident almost whisper. “You all had it handed to you. I had to fight my way in here.”

Buck pushed his chair back. He shot a glance at Chris’s door and caught the team leader’s eye. Chris looked back down at his notes. The message was clear. Handle it and get him in here.

“Ease off the throttle, flyboy,” Buck snapped irritably, getting up and dragging J.D. into the conference room. He shut the door and pushed the young agent into a chair, leaning over him, getting his attention.

“Ease up or you’re gonna crack,” Buck said, his voice calm and serious, but his eyes were hard.

J.D. stopped suddenly in mid retort. Staring.

“First, when you talked to Chris back there at the ranch, that was the real deal. Unofficial maybe, but as real a deal as you’re gonna get. Second, Chris is calling the shots here. He’s in charge. Got it?”

J.D. opened his mouth to protest that he never thought otherwise. But Buck cut him off.

“Third, I don’t know how he wants to play this exactly, but you gotta trust him. He ain’t gonna sell you out and he ain’t gonna throw you off the team. He’ll do what he can to protect the team, but you gotta help him out. You gotta play it his way. He’ll tell you what he needs from you. But you gotta get yourself together so you can hear it when he asks. You got me?”

J.D. stared at him.

“I’m serious, kid,” Buck said. The dark blue eyes were solemn, his face grave. “If ever you needed to be able to read him, it’s now. Cause he ain’t gonna be able to come right out and ask. Speak when you’re spoken to. Answer only what’s asked. Don’t volunteer anything. Leave everything else to him.”

J.D. swallowed hard. For a short few days, he had allowed himself to hope that everything would be all right, that things would go back to being the same as they were. Their mistakes erased. He had allowed himself to forget the magnitude of what they had done. He had allowed himself to disregard Nathan’s warnings. Now he knew.

He might not always be able to read Chris, but he could read Buck loud and clear. Do what Chris says. Just like back at the warehouse. He chided himself. Then it had been life and death. But now? He stopped cold. It was still life.

Buck saw the accusation in J.D.’s eyes. But he did not flinch. He did not know exactly what was running through J.D.’s head. But he knew Chris too damn well. He didn’t know the game plan, but he could guess the general direction Chris would go if he had to. And Buck had already asked himself the hard question already, right after his argument with Chris on the porch. Are you just going to let him do it again? Take a career bullet to save your ass.

But this time, Buck had made peace with his answer. Yes, he had realized. For the team, if I have to, I’ll let him chuck up one hell of a career. I’ll let him play this any way he wants to. I’ll let him get his ass fired or worse. And then I’ll do what I always do. I’ll sign on wherever he goes next.

The simplicity of it had floored him at first. He loved his job. But he had loved his other jobs, too. Then, he realized that this had nothing to do with work and careers and everything to do with something he had known since the second week of his sophomore year of high school, when the skinny blond new kid without the sense to keep his head down got smack in the middle of a slugfest between the freshman class punching bag and two off-season thugs from the wrestling team. By the time Buck realized that someone needed to get the principal and that he was the only one available, the skinny blond had already got the crap beat out of him and the freshman had had the sense to run away. Buck looked on silently, as the principal stood over the new kid, and knowing damn well what had really happened, demanded to hear it from the boy’s own mouth. The blond kid refused to pin any blame on anyone, and so he went to detention for fighting, still wearing that cocky grin on his split lips. In that moment, truth was revealed for young Buck Wilmington: Wherever Chris Larabee went, that’s where the action was going to be. So far, he had never been disappointed.

He locked eyes with J.D. the way Chris had locked eyes with him on the porch. Face to face, leaning over the boy like a vulture, he waited until he saw it. Acquiescence. Submission. Obedience. Whatever the plan was, J.D. would follow. Buck let his young teammate up out of the chair and watched him go into Chris’s office, closing the door behind him.

J.D. slid quietly into the seat across from Chris’s desk, exhaling, and steeling himself to adhere to Buck’s advice, as Chris turned on the recorder. J.D. had never listened so closely before to what was not being said.

“I have a list of surveillance equipment signed out to Team Seven,” Chris said, pushing a requisition form toward him. “I also have a list of communications equipment missing from Team Seven’s locker,” he continued. He pushed a second list toward J.D.

Dunne fidgeted nervously as he looked at the list. Chris ignored it, suppressing the thought that an IA agent would have shredded the boy by now. He was a great agent, cool in the trenches even under a hail of flying bullets. But he was too damn honest. His own integrity was likely to hang him up by his toenails. Chris remembered only too well how that had been slowly beaten out of him by his careers.

He looked up at the young agent. J.D. swallowed. Chris thanked God that there were no actual witnesses to the interrogation.

“Is this your signature at the bottom of the requisition form?” Chris asked, pointing at the signature. He sounded almost bored.

“Yes,” J.D. responded, his voice calm despite his restlessness.

“Look at the date,” Chris replied. “And look at the reasons for requisition.” He looked up sharply. “What case was this equipment signed out for?”

J.D. swallowed hard and looked straight at Chris. “There was no case,” he replied, forcing the words out.

Chris scanned another document that J.D. couldn’t see. He looked back up at J.D. “Under whose authority did you requisition this equipment and for what purpose?”

J.D. stared back at him. Chris could see the balk in the wide hazel eyes. They opened wider with the shock of realization.

Trust him, Buck had said. Easy enough to say, but it wasn’t Chris who was lined up in the sights to take the blame. And Buck didn’t even know the bullet was coming. From Chris. In the back. And he was asking J.D. to pull the trigger.

A silent plea filled the J.D.’s face. Don’t ask me to do this!

“Under whose authority did you requisition this equipment and for what purpose?” Chris repeated, an edge in his voice. Come on, J.D., he thought, staring intently at his youngest agent. You have to do this. You need to give him up.

J.D. stared helplessly back at his boss. Then he saw it in the green eyes. Trust me.

He opened his mouth and forced out the answer. “Buck Wilmington.” Shame flooded him.

Outrage followed as he read the approval in Chris’s eyes.

Chris read the anger in the young agent’s face. His fingers clenched on the bottom of his desk.

“Was Agent Wilmington in command of the team at that time?” he asked.

J.D. narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he said. Then quickly amended, “I mean, no.”

Chris raised his eyebrows. “Yes or no, Agent Dunne, which is it?”

J.D. coughed, cleared his throat, anger gathering in his face like a storm cloud. “No, he wasn’t in charge,” he said.

Chris’s eyebrows came back down. “He wasn’t in charge, but you followed his orders anyway?”

J.D. stopped squirming. His body went rigid. He glared back at Chris.

He stuttered on the answer. “We, I mean I just thought…”

“You thought what?” Chris interrupted, his voice cold.

“Buck, I mean Agent Wilmington, has always been second in command,” J.D. said defiantly. “It’s always been our chain of command. You first, and if not you, Buck.”

He halted. Stared at his hands in his lap, defeat now warring with his anger and shame. He looked up to face Chris and was suddenly confused to see a familiar half smile resting on the team leader’s face. Chris’s head moved once in a tiny nod of approval. Heat rushed up J.D.’s neck. He had just betrayed Buck, his best friend, a man who was like a brother to him, to the man who was supposed to be Buck’s best friend. How could this be what Chris wanted?

The expression flashed full across his face, his face that showed everything, whether he wanted it seen or not.

He saw a strange sadness tinge the half smile on Chris’s face. None of it showed in Chris’s voice as he asked the next question. “What reason did Agent Wilmington give for requisitioning the equipment?”

J.D. gave a steely glare back at Chris. “We were conducting an investigation.”

“An official investigation?”

“No,” J.D. snapped.

“Were you aware that this was an unofficial investigation?” Chris asked sharply, his gaze intense.

J.D. locked eyes with the team leader. “Yes,” he replied. “I was aware that the investigation was unofficial.”

“Were you aware of the nature of the investigation?” he asked. His gaze was telegraphing a message to J.D.

“Yes, I was,” J.D. answered, narrowing his eyes trying to force himself to read the silent message. But all he could think was You bastard!

“What did you believe was the nature of the investigation?” Chris asked, eyes locked on J.D.’s

J.D. swallowed. He took a breath. “We wanted to find out who killed our team leader,” he replied. The words were awkward. He felt cold inside.

Chris steeled himself for the next set of questions. So far J.D. had done just right. Now was the crucial moment. He willed J.D. to hold on, to stay with him just a bit longer.

Chris took a silent breath. “Agent Dunne, did Agent Wilmington order you to conduct an illegal surveillance?”

J.D. flinched, his face burning.

Chris cocked his head suddenly to the side. Grabbing his attention. The green eyes intense.

J.D. felt his throat tighten as it fell on him. The one open road. He could defy Chris right on the tape. He could tell him to go right to hell. And that would be exactly the opposite of what Buck wanted him to do. Buck who didn’t know yet that Chris was giving him up. But even if he had known, he would have told J.D. to save his own career.

He hedged. “I planned and carried out the illegal surveillance.” That was the truth, he reassured himself. Buck had not ordered him to conduct the surveillance. He had said they’d need one. J.D. had simply risen to the occasion.

Chris’s eyes narrowed. “Did you conduct this surveillance under the supervision of Agent Wilmington?” His gaze darkened, zeroed in.

J.D. looked down at his lap. Unable to maintain the eye contact. He hoped he got the message right. He hoped Buck would forgive him. He knew that either way the team was over. It would never be like it was. “Yes,” he said quietly.

Chris leaned forward across the desk. J.D. refused to look up.

“Whom did you place under surveillance?”

J.D. hesitated. He heard Chris inhale to ask again. “Samuel Bautiste,” he replied angrily.

Chris pursed his lips, eyes still narrowed.

“And what did you hope to gain from watching Samuel Bautiste?” he asked, a note of puzzlement in his voice.

J.D. looked up again. Choosing his words carefully. “To find out where the rocket launchers came from.”

“Did you find out where the rocket launchers came from?” Chris asked, a slow smile spreading across his lips, even as his voice remained calm and detached.

“Yes,” J.D. replied, now understanding why that smile made people hate Chris. “They were sold to the militia by Dowd.”

“Your surveillance yielded this information?” Chris asked.

“Yes,” J.D. replied, looking sharply at Chris. Wondering if he could risk saying more.

The look in Chris’s eye stopped him.

“Thank you, Agent Dunne,” he said, relaxing back in his chair, and drawing the requisition and equipment inventory forms off the desktop and placing them in a folder. He gazed at J.D. through half-lidded eyes and gave him a nod. “That will be all for now,” he said. He made no move to turn off the recorder.

Aware of the tape still going around, recording his every move and word, J.D. forced himself out of the chair. Closed his jaw and turned away, feeling shaky.

“Close the door behind you,” Chris ordered, his tone perfectly neutral.

J.D. did as he was asked.

Out in the bullpen again, he glanced at the clock. Nearly noon. He slid silently into his chair, and ran a hand across his forehead. Sweating.

“You all right?” Buck asked him.

J.D. turned a pale face up to him filled with shame and guilt. Struggling to contain both, the young agent shook his head. Not willing to trust his voice.

Buck narrowed his eyes. He got up and grabbed both their jackets from the coat hook near the door, throwing J.D. his. He gestured toward the door with his head.

J.D. got up automatically.

Buck announced that they were going to lunch. Neither man spoke again until they were in Buck’s truck. Then J.D. bent over across his legs, resting his head on the dashboard. He started swearing, his words muffled by his arms folded under his head.

Buck stared at the young agent, trying to keep an eye on the road at the same time. Worried now, he swung into a nearby parking lot. “What happened?” Buck asked, forcing himself to keep his rising fear out of his voice. What the hell went on in there?

“I’m sorry,” came the muffled reply. “I’m so sorry.”

“J.D.” Buck said forcefully, grabbing the youth’s shoulder. “Sit up and look at me.”

Slowly, reluctantly, J.D. Dunne sat up, scrubbing a hand down his face, looking suddenly older. “I’m sorry, Buck,” he said, his face and voice pleading for forgiveness. “I couldn’t lie. And it’s on tape.”

A multitude of bad scenarios passed through the more experienced agent’s mind. He forced them down. “What did you say?”

J.D. forced himself to look his best friend in the eye. It was the least he could do. “He made me give you up.”

Buck stared at J.D. not understanding.

“I gave you up,” he repeated. It sounded even worse the second time. He forced himself to continue. Buck deserved to know what had happened. “I told him I was following your orders. I told him we conducted an illegal surveillance operation on Bautiste under your supervision.”

Buck’s reaction was not what J.D. anticipated. In fact, he didn’t even know what to make of it. For a long moment, Buck just stared at him, past him, as if he didn’t see him, and out the window behind him. Then he grunted once. If anything, he sounded puzzled.

The dark blue eyes focused back on him. “How did Chris react?”

J.D.’s face darkened with anger. “He seemed real satisfied,” the young agent retorted bitterly. “Like that’s what he wanted to hear.”

Buck pursed his lips and grunted again, staring out the windshield this time. J.D. watched him. Neither man spoke.

Then Buck shrugged, shook himself and backed the truck up, turning it around and back toward the road.

“He betrayed you! That bastard betrayed you! And you’re just going to take it?” J.D. stuttered, his voice shaking, the realization sinking even deeper as he said it.

“I’m not…” Buck began. Suddenly unsure. He grabbed for a belief. “I don’t really know what he’s got up his sleeve,” Buck said forcing a lopsided smile. “But since, from what you say, it doesn’t look like I have to go back and scrape Chris off the ceiling, I guess I’ll just trust him.”

“What if he’s wrong?” J.D. snapped.

Buck shrugged again, his face shadowed. “You told the truth, J.D. You conducted an illegal surveillance under my authority and supervision. I’m prepared to face the music if I have to.” And Chris knows that, he thought grimly. He had already considered that Chris was putting himself way out on a limb to save the team. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he would drag Buck out there with him. After all, he did lead the team in going AWOL. He did supervise and lead an illegal surveillance operation. That was already too obvious. Would Chris use it? Because he sure as hell couldn’t cover it up. What about the rest of it? Breaking and entering, trespassing, menacing, extortion, attempted assault with a deadly weapon. And then there was Richter… He went cold.

You can’t save me from the truth, Old Pard, he thought, the team leader’s furious visage rising suddenly before him in the remembered dark of Larabee’s deck. The realization of how far out he already walked on that limb—under his own power, his own choice, his own blind rage—settled on him. Cold, hard, suffocating. Maybe there was no out for him this time.

Chris’s voice came back to him. You’re not going down for this. You hear? Whatever happens now, you follow my lead.

Buck willed himself to keep trusting that promise.